India wants NRI scientists to come home—but where’s the R&D money?

Who’s backing them?
Who’s backing them?
Image: AP Photo/Saurabh Das
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In 2003, roughly half-a-million Indian immigrant scientists and engineers lived and worked in the US. A decade on, the number grew to nearly a million. India’s economic survey 2018 has noted that of the over 100,000 Indian-born PhDs living and working abroad, more than 91,000 reside in the US.

Lately, though, more and more of this talent is finding its way back home. ”…with the strength of India’s economy and growing anti-immigrant atmosphere in some Western countries, India has an opportunity to attract back more scientists,” said the survey authored by chief economic advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian and his team.

The reverse brain drain is still merely a trickle, though. The number of scientists who returned to work in India between 2007 and 2012 was 243. The figure climbed up to 649 over the next five years.

Although the government is vying for more, there’s a basic problem: India’s severe underfunding of research and development (R&D) at a dismal 0.7% of the GDP.

Most of the investment in research comes from public funding, spent largely on research done by, and for, the government. Academic institutes, the hotbeds of innovation elsewhere in the world, hardly contribute.

“The separation of research from teaching has been an Achilles’ heel for Indian science,” the survey said. “Universities have students but need additional faculty support, while research institutes have qualified faculty but are starved of bright young students brimming with energy and ideas.”

At the same time, private companies aren’t getting behind the research community either. On the list of the top 2,500 global R&D spenders, India’s presence extends to a mere 26 companies, versus China’s 301. Moreover, 73% of these firms are active in just three sectors: pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and software.

Making room for talent

The government is trying to woo talent back through programmes such as the Ramanujan Fellowship Scheme, the Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) Faculty Scheme, Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship, and The Visiting Advanced Joint Research Faculty Scheme (VAJRA)—all avenues for qualified Indian researchers residing abroad to work with Indian institutes.

However, the number of Indian students enrolling in STEM PhD programmes in the US is dwindling, so just launching initiatives to bring back talent trained abroad isn’t enough. The pressure is mounting for Indian institutes to step up the game for domestic researchers.

STEM students
There are far fewer Indian PhDs in STEM subjects in the US compared to Chinese ones.
Image: Economic Survey 2017-2018

Beyond monetary endowments, these schemes should also focus on allowing good research facilities like laboratory resources, the ability to hire post-docs, housing and more “to ensure that homegrown talent has a level playing field,” the survey said. The department of science and technology has also set up an autonomous body called the Science and Engineering Research Board, which has already sanctioned around 3,500 new R&D projects to individual scientists.

But only one thing can bring it all to fruition: more money.